This page is intended to help dancers (both new and experienced) understand the music, its phrasing, and how that relates to the dancing a bit better. A better understanding can help you become a better dancer, and perhaps more importantly to have more fun dancing and to cause those around you to have more fun as well.
At any New England country dance, whether you’re dancing a modern contra, an old chestnut, a square, a polka or some other kind of dance, you’re interacting constantly with other dancers.
Dancing with your partner. Most obviously, you’re dancing with your partner. Generally you keep the same partner for the entire dance; in some dances you change partners and you may end up dancing with several partners. Every now and then due to a mistake made by you or someone else you’ll unexpectedly find yourself with a new partner. Sometimes you can get your original partner back, but sometimes it’s easier just to accept it. I’ll discuss dancing with your partner in another tab, but here I want to discuss the other type of interaction.
Dancing with the group. You’re also interacting with many of the other people in the hall as you dance. In a contradance you dance with each couple in your set as you progress up and down the line. In a polka you keep the same partner, but you have to pay attention to everyone around you and adjust your path to be compatible with theirs; and at the same time they should be paying some attention to what you’re doing.
The social side of dancing. There are many interactions at dances that don’t involve dancing. Before the dance starts those who arrive early get to visit with their friends. There’s the interaction of asking or being asked to dance. There’s the formation of sets, and talking to your neighbors before the walkthrough starts; and at the end of the dance thanking your partner and your set (especially in a square). There are interactions during the break, and at the end of the evening. Some people tend to minimize social interactions, others really enjoy that aspects of the dance.
Dancing involves social and physical interactions that rarely happen in other contexts, especially between people who aren’t close friends. I think that makes it especially important that while dancing and while socializing, we treat others respectfully and considerately as well as in a friendly fashion. We'll look more at these interactions in the next couple tabs.
It should be clear that how one person dances affects everyone around them. If a dancer or a couple gets ahead or falls behind that has an impact on others nearby. It may make it hard to dance the next figure. Likewise if you’re showing off or into your own world of dancing that will probably affect those around you. Some dances don’t hold up well to disruption. I’ve seen entire sets fall apart because one person isn’t paying attention, or because someone is fooling around.
New England country dance is a group activity, and it works best when everyone is dancing as part of the group rather than coming up with hotshot moves to impress their partner (or themselves). It’s hard to beat dancing in a set where everyone is really dancing together.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for individual style, being silly or creativity while dancing. But what it does mean is that if you want to do something different, pay attention to how it fits in with the dance and the dancers. Make sure you don’t get in anyone’s way, don’t hurt anyone, and that you end up in the right place at the right time for the next figure.
If you follow those general guidelines I think you should find it makes dancing more fun, and you will contribute to everyone else having a good time. In the next tab we'll look at interactions between individual dancers.
Of course we all make mistakes. Most of us understand that new dancers make mistakes and get confused and anxious; all of us were at that stage at one point. If we want them to come back we should be friendly and accepting of their confusion, and gently guide them in the right direction.
Of course none of us are perfect and we all continue to make mistakes now and then. As we get better we make fewer mistakes, and most importantly we also learn to recover from our mistakes more quickly.
The only time I get annoyed either as a caller or as a dancer is when someone has been dancing for a long time and continues to make frequent mistakes but doesn’t learn to recover so their mistakes are often disruptive. This is often accompanied by not paying attention to the caller and at the same time blaming the caller for their confusion despite the fact that everyone else is doing just fine.
Expanded and updated from an article in the August 1990 Seacoast Country Dance Newsletter.
I thought about calling this page “Dancing with your Partner”, but really it applies to any interactions you have with other dancers individually.
Anyone who has been to dance at which I am a caller should figure out that I’m not overly controlling. There are a couple things I care about. First, that the dancers be quiet enough during the walk-through that I don’t have to shout too loudly. Second, I care that the sets be relatively equal in length, especially with unequal contras. Occasionally I teach style, but not overly frequently and hopefully not in excessive detail. I’ve learned that dancers (including myself) don’t particularly like being lectured about style, and many don’t pay attention anyway. However, I have been dancing and calling for long enough that I have some opinions on the matter. Fortunately, I have this newsletter (2020 — this website) in which to express them every now and then.
Today’s opinion deals with dancing your partner or any other dancer, especially for those who like to dance with energy and spirit. Basically, I approve of the concept, as you would expect of anyone whose favorite dance is the Maine Country Dance Orchestra dance in Bowdoinham. I find it to be much more fun to dance with someone who is obviously having a good time and is dancing in a spirited fashion than with someone who is seems to be more concerned with being a nearly perfect dancer. Contradancing is a participatory folk dance, not a professional performance dance form, in which technique is much more important. Note from 2020: I can’t dance like I used to and have developed a much smoother style, but I still would much rather dance with someone who is having fun than with someone who cares more about appearing to be a good dancer.
However, an occasional experience or report from another dancer reminds me of the importance of learning to dance well, especially if you want to dance enthusiastically. Several months ago Ken Wilson called a dance in which everyone swings with someone of the same sex. Several dancers (all men, presumably with homophobia problems) got upset, but I found it interesting. How often do I get to see how other men swing?
Actually, I was sort of horrified: most men were swinging rather roughly, and not as well as most women. I have to wonder what it would be like to swing with some of these men if I were a foot shorter and 60 pounds lighter! Complaints about being swung or twirled with too much vigor also occur more frequently than they should. Often the subject of the complaint apparently shows no concern for (or perhaps no interest in) what his/her partner really wants to do.
What this is leading to is that if you are going to dance in a fun and energetic style (which is certainly appropriate), make sure it is fun for those you dance with as well as for yourself. Vigor is not a substitute for learning how to swing smoothly or for being considerate towards your partner!
To expand a bit further, regardless of the energy level of one’s dancing, and regardless of one’s skill level, it’s always important to dance with respect and consideration for your partner and for others you may dance with as you progress up and down the line. That includes things like how you hold your partner and how you interact socially. It also includes listening to the caller during the walkthrough and making sure that if you try something you think will be fun that it fits in with what everyone else is doing. That will make your partner and others around you have more fun dancing with you, and should make the dance more enjoyable for you too!